This week, I enjoyed a lot of “maker’s time.” I’ve written about the bifurcation between “maker’s time” and “manager’s time” before, lifting from Paul Graham’s insights:
“The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour…Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”
I enjoy a lot of “maker’s time” in general, but this week, I bathed in it. I actually went just north of “maker’s time” into “thinker’s time” territory, where I didn’t spend as much time as I usually do in the act of writing and production, but rather did a lot of processing while on long walks and runs, while sitting outside, while doing nothing with my hands. Sometimes we need time to do nothing at all. I was buffering, re-wiring. And I got a lot of reading and thinking done.
I re-read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast for probably the fifth or sixth time. I rarely re-read (life is too short!) but there is something about this book that feels like returning to a creative center for me. In high school and especially college, I was fixated on the modernist movement. I view it now as a kind of bridge between representational art and the wilderness of abstraction, borrowing the best elements of both — especially in works by Hemingway. You can see he is in pursuit of truth, believes there is a kernel to be found, but he is also grappling with a world turned on its head in the aftermath of war and the decline of empire. It moves me to see artists writing into and against that ruin. In the depths of the pandemic, I watched a celebrity-studded musical performance put on, I believe, as an act of humanitarianism during the bleakest of lockdown hours (and also, she offers rather shrewdly, as a means to keep the names of musicians in households during a time in which no one was attending concerts), and I remember brushing tears out of my eyes when Kacey Musgraves sang “Rainbow.” I was sitting on the floor of my New York apartment, desperate and exhausted, and I thought: “Thank God for artists. They are so brave! Out there, entertaining us, singing over the death knell!” Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Joyce were doing the same: tap-dancing on the embers. Well, perhaps not tap-dancing, but certainly leading us in song.
So, I re-read that, and the entire time, it felt like Hemingway was scolding me. You do too much explaining in your writing. You need to show, imply, but never tell! There is a part in A Moveable Feast where he talks about the time his wife, with good intention, brought all of his manuscripts, even the copies, on vacation as a surprise for Hemingway. Unfortunately, everything — every last page — was stolen from their room. He lost years of work. He does not comment on his emotional state, but demonstratively mentions that he took the train home that very night because he could not believe his wife would have taken every copy from their home. When he learns that this was, in fact, the case, he says only: “I do not want to think about what I did in that room after I discovered.” (Paraphrasing.) He has a wonderful way of using ellipsis, doesn’t he? At the same time, there is a sense of unhealthy self-suppression in Hemingway’s writing. Tom Wolfe delivered the commencement address at my college graduation and in it, he made a comment about Freud, and drew some metaphor from his writing about how our subconsciouses are constantly “rearranging the living room furniture” in terms of how we interact with the world around us. Wolfe said something like: “What scares me is that while we’re worrying about the repositioning of the living room furniture, what’s going on in the basement?”
I’m likely misremembering the exact phrasing or context of the Wolfe quote, but it captures the way I feel about Hemingway’s writing — we’re elbowing our way around the carefully-placed side tables and couches, but there’s a lot of grist and grind going on downstairs, and it doesn’t seem particularly auspicious.
Anyhow, it’s worth a read, or a listen, even if we have the sense that Hemingway is white-knuckling it through “the not-saids.”
I also read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy, and I think I might let myself marinate on this one for awhile because I have so many thoughts, although very few of them are about the text itself (which I found, to be blunt and honest, middling) and more about her novelistic conventions (the way she draws on our cultural fixation with celebrities by fictionalizing their lives) and the way she confronts the pandemic squarely, as it was happening. I found myself shuddering to remember some of the very-real details she presents on the latter front: the fear, the isolation, the etiological messaging of COVID, the way the pandemic led us to do such dramatic things as wipe down our groceries with sanitizer, leave cities in the middle of the night to move in with aging parents, and drive across country to avoid the airport. It is good to have her facsimile of the times, because already, I think: that happened? It feels other-worldly, and yet we lived it, and now I go into the supermarket without thinking twice.
My critique of the book itself is that the narrative design felt flimsy and at the same time forced: the epistolary segment in the middle felt particularly gainful, as if she could avoid the hard work of building character by instead having them explain in excruciating detail the complexity of their inner lives in their own prose. The book also suffered from length. Most of the “sketches” she presents in the beginning were extraneous to the progression of the book, and yet we knew them over-intimately, as though house-guests overstaying their visits. I also found that the voices of the protagonist and her love interest fused with one another: they both spoke with the same witty self-awareness and appreciation for extreme, occasionally funny detail. It sort of felt like Sittenfeld was having a pleasant dream-banter with herself, which — I mean, is not the worst thing, because she is so bright. I marvel at her ability to fully conjure the inner world of a character (usually one modeled on a celebrity, no less!), one with internal shorthand, deep memory, and real feeling. As such, I would still recommend this book because I read half of it in one night, and it’s rare I plug in that way. It’s easy, entertaining reading and I do find the way she taps into our cultural obsession with celebrity addictive. I haven’t bothered to read any of the reviews of the book, but I imagined the protagonist to be a kind of Tina Fey and her love interest to be John Mayer. Danny Horst was, very clearly and almost literally, Pete Davidson.
All in, I appreciated the simulated trip to the moon, even though I was keenly aware of its artifice on the ride. Sometimes we need the lighterweight fare! Next up in this vein are Happy Place and Every Summer After. On the more substantive side of things, I think I might read some more Hemingway or Fitzgerald? Any other really good books out there?
Other things I consumed this week: I’m midway through the Mary Oliver audiobook I mentioned yesterday, we’re up to speed on “Succession,” and we started “The Diplomat” (I love Rufus Sewell) on HBO. By the time this is going live, we will have watched the movies “Still” (Michael J. Fox biopic) and “Air.” All in, a full and deep and diverting week of absorbing other media and thought.
Some other things I liked and thought about this week:
+This peach hot honey is SO delicious (!) I paired it with aged gouda and those Pink Himalayan salt crackers you can get at Whole Foods and WOW. I also keep thinking it would be delicious served with arugula and ricotta on a flatbread, or on a sandwich with spicy coppa.
+I wore a lot of stripes this week. I wrote about that here, and shared my exact outfit details seen in the header image here.
+The roses on the East side of our house are in bloom, and they remind me of Elizabeth. I actually call them “the Elizabeth roses.”
+Writing that last sentence out reminds me that our lives truly do become mosaics of the people we love.
+Last summer, I put together little “welcome to summer” surprise buckets for the children on their first official day of summer break. They included mini gliders, new goggles and swimsuits, sticker books, new water bottles, sunglasses, sidewalk chalk. I’m beginning to compile this year’s (will share what I include), but Mr. Magpie also wants to give them a few bigger “backyard summer” gifts, including a hockey goal and an Aqua Maze.
+These cotton shorts for running after the kids!
+We bought some of my son’s birthday gifts this week (will share all finds once we’ve settled on the remaining ones), and I wanted to mention we got him a big box of loose Legos and they’re currently 40% off! My daughter loves the sets where she can set up a scene once and then play with the figurines — it’s more about the character play for her. But my son LOVES to build. He is always messing with duplos and magnatiles, more interested in the construction element versus character play afterward. So interesting! Anyway, we thought the box of loose Legos would be a good fit for his interests, versus one of the scenes/vignettes.
+I keep thinking about a dramatic pair of jeweled summer shoes, like these or these. Wowza!
+We booked our travel for an end-of-summer wedding in Maine. I keep switching up what I want to wear, but current frontrunners are this Fanm Mon (with this clutch!), this Agua Bendita, and this Damaris Bailey. I’m pretty sure the latter two are not right for the vibe.
+I am really in love with the statement jackets at Veronica Beard right now — this, this, and this are spectacular.
+My neighbor just shared that she LOVES this shave oil. I’ve always just used Gillette for shaving but am going to up the ante here and follow suit. (More of my favorite shower products here.)
+Today is the final day of the Paravel sitewide sale — 25% off everything with code SUNSHINE. You really must treat yourself to this tote! I used it all last summer. Great for travel / pool / day adventures / schlepping kid gear from one place to the next.
+Finally, we got really into aperol spritzes this week. A perfect end of day, pre-dinner cocktail. Below, you can see it alongside grilled asparagus showered with parm, calabrian chilies, lemon, and olive oil, which we had alongside baked potatoes and grilled ribeye. I love you, summer! Going to try to share more of our dining program because so many of you loved my Grub Street Style food diary!
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25 thoughts on “The Magpie Edit: Edition 38.”
I finished Romantic Comedy while on vacay. It wasn’t my favourite of hers and I’m hoping there will be a movie or TV series in the works. Agreed re Tina Fey as this read like 30 Rock and SNL on many levels. I’m hoping her next book will be a run one. Perhaps if there is less marketing for a book then the expectation is not so high and I’m beginning to think books that are selected for a celebrity book club are not always that good.
Yes, agree with this!
I was so eager for Romantic Comedy (I have devoured and loved literally every single other Sittenfeld) and this was a colossal flop for me. The beginning read like a Seventeen article “spend a day with me as an SNL writer” that didn’t get edited well? The heavy detailing of workplace procedures felt so reseach-papery to me and failed to be an actual plot. I yawned through the rest and found the main character’s constant low self esteem whining…well, whiney. A very boring female character trope. Okay rant over but GAH I’m such a Sittenfeld fan and she is normally so bright and sharp and quirky…this almost felt like a personal betrayal, haha. I’m almost two dozen books into the year and nothing has thrilled me yet…is it just a slow start for 2023 releases? Hoping the new Ann Patchett is a balm when it comes out this August.
Okay, YES, Katherine. You perfectly verbalized my reaction – could not be nodding harder. I’m such a Sittenfeld stan, but this one was a complete outlier.
Hi Katherine! Thanks so much for this honest review – I definitely relate to many of your criticisms, especially about the protagonist — she was difficult to accommodate! I still found Sittenfeld’s ability to weave a very thorough, detailed, believable, high-resolution world deeply impressive. Like how can she go so deep into a single character’s world?! It’s so creative. But, agree that this was put to better effect in her earlier books. Will still read whatever she dreams up next though…
Excited to see what else is coming up – let me know if you find anything great.
P.S.: Intrigued by that shave oil! In the past I had used L’Occitane’s almond shower oil, which is an oil that somehow lathers up in the shower. I used to LOVE that whole almond line of theirs, but have since switched to fragrance-free skincare due to allergies I’ve developed over time. I’m now using Avene’s Xera Calm cleansing oil as my body wash/shaving wash.
P.P.S.: I second Sofia’s comment/request for summer grilling ideas! Mind sharing which Weber grill you have? Thank you!
Hi! He has one of the Weber Kettle Performers:
He really likes having that built-in side area to hold the plate / tongs (and his beer – ha).
He is particular about everything, though, including the charcoal. I’ll bother him for my details tonight!
I ordered that spicy peach honey as soon as I read your first post on it — and you are right, it is SO good! I always love pairing sweet and savory, and your English muffin + aged gouda + spicy peach honey combo was my lunch yesterday. Delicious! I ordered a few more bottles to have on hand as gifts, especially since I saw the price went down to $6 a few days ago!
Yay!! Thanks for the tip, ordering a few more too!
I just read Wintering by Katherine May and it is truly life-changing. I’ve already bought it for my sisters and a friend who is having difficult days. I shall read it again in the Fall as it feels like I should prepare for my own “wintering”, as nature does!
OK, definitely going to read – thanks for the nudges, Magpies!
I recently finished Romantic Comedy, too, and as I mentioned in a previous comment, was kind of “eh” on it as well – but similarly caught myself staying up late to finish it! One of my favorites of hers, in the category of this-is-very-clearly-about-a-well-known-figure is American Wife. When I read it, I was young(er) and truly did not realize it was loosely about Laura Bush until the last pages when the Iraq War was mentioned and had a big “OHHHH okay wow this all makes sense” moment.
On a non-Sittenfeld note, I’m a few pages away from finishing Maame. It reminds me a bit of Such a Fun Age (can’t remember if you’ve read) and The Other Black Girl with a dash of Seven Days in June… easy to read but also confronts heavier topics in a very realistic way. Definitely recommend!
Oh! And Free Food for Millionaires – same author as Pachinko. WHAT a book.
Hi! I also loved “American Wife” and “Rodham.” Both SO delicious. They both really made me wonder about the ethics of fictionalizing the lives of real people, especially ones in the political world. I wondered how she dodged law suits?! So interesting!
Thanks for the recs!!
Maame was a fantastic read. I read that and then I read Romantic Comedy. I just started Paper Palace but am finding it a bit hard to get into.
Thank you! I also started and put down Paper Palace!
Might be a few years away for you, but one of my younger brother’s favorite “toys” growing up was a giant piece of whiteboard. He also loved to build like your son and his whiteboard became so many things over the years: blueprints, an airport for his miniature airplanes (surprise surprise, he’s a pilot now!), a full city laid out and I’m sure much more I’m forgetting. A fun thought for the future!
SO clever – love this idea! Filing way!
OMG – the yellow Fanm Mon is to die! You have to wear it.
Eeee!!! My mom said the same!!
I adore Sittenfeld but agree almost entirely with your review, except I really enjoyed the epistolary section of emails! I think Sittenfeld is brilliant and transferring the real world into fiction so recognizably and hilariously (sometimes it’s total cringe!).
Demon Copperhead is hands down the best book I’ve read in 2023 but I also was very drawn into Rebecca Makkai’s new book. I didn’t love it as much as The Great Believers, but the way she captured high school in the late 1990s was spot-on, with all of the troubling social dynamics long before the me-too movement. And it’s a page turning thriller in the form of a long epistle as well, so maybe epistolary is just my thing at the moment! Speaking of, if you’re looking for something different (and epistolary), A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsyth Hailey is an absolute delight.
Thank you for these recs!! I generally love epistolary novels, too. There was just something short-cut-like about them in the Sittenfeld, although still very enjoyable…!
Would love to hear more about your summer grilling adventures! We just invested in an electric grill (apartment/balcony life), but it feels like a game changer and I’d love more grilling inspiration to add into our usual rotation.
Hi! I will try to share some ideas. You must try Publican’s chicken recipe —
It is one of our FAVORITES.
On books, have you read any Tessa Hadley? I’ve just finished three of hers in a row and the writing is exquisite.
I haven’t! Thanks for the nudge!! Favorite?